When MPs and peers vote, they enter lobbies on either side of the chamber and their names are published as voting either ‘Aye’ or ‘No’ (MPs) or ‘Content’ or ‘Not Content’ (peers). People outside Parliament thus know how members have voted: it is also a useful resource for researchers, as it facilitates analysis of voting behaviour.
However, abstentions are not recorded. A member may deliberately refrain from voting. This is distinguishable from being unavoidably absent (for example, being abroad on parliamentary business or being stuck in a lift). The former is a political action and the latter is not. Some commentators have argued that abstentions should be recorded. That way, people know which members have made a deliberate decision not to support or oppose a motion. I have sympathy with this argument, essentially for two reasons. First, as a parliamentarian, I don’t like ‘hiding’: I would prefer my abstention to be a matter of record. Second, as someone whose academic career is based on analysing parliamentary voting behaviour, it would facilitate my task enormously!
I recognise that there are problems with the proposal. One would have official abstentions (those on the record) and unofficial abstentions (those who deliberately stay away). More importantly, what would one do when the party line is to abstain? Do all the party members in the House record an abstention? This raises practical problems. A few abstentions could be recorded by informing the Clerk at the table, but it would be difficult to manage if one had 100 or more members wishing to abstain. It would be feasible with electronic voting, but I am very much opposed to that. Perhaps – and here I think we may have the optimum solution – it could be confined to those votes where members wish to record abstentions where to do so goes against the party line. That way, there is no need to record names when a party line is to abstain.
I think this may be worth pursuing, though no doubt there are problems that I have overlooked….